Theater Review: 1776 (Glendale Centre Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on August 6, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Strength. Courage. Character. Fortitude. These are traits that have inspired Americans, both in our leaders and in folklore. The 1968 musical 1776, now receiving a splendid production at Glendale Centre Theatre, is chock-full of the spirit that audiences need to experience in uncertain economic and political times. Based on the Second Continental Congress’s debate over the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, 1776 is wisely more folklore than truth: for example, Peter Stone’s intelligent and very funny book includes a collection of bon mots from Benjamin Franklin’s entire career which are conveniently inserted into the action – as are the many letters between John and Abigail Adams. The truth is that both the debates and signing of the Declaration were a slipshod affair (historians can only surmise the date of the signing, but it surely was not July 4) and too much fidelity to the truth – especially the timeline of events – would have made for poor storytelling.

1776 - Glendale Centre TheatreFor all of its manipulations (a courier seems to conveniently show up with a letter from George Washington just as Congress reaches an impasse), 1776 has a sophisticated book which contains 25 distinctive characters that represent the disparate voices of America. Even those with an implacable heart will leave the theater with a misty-eyed patriotism. We are inspired because the Congress in 1776 is evenly divided on the issues, just as we are today, but still manages to accomplish a seemingly unattainable goal.

As explained in the review of last year’s revival of 1776 at MTW, this is one of the most miraculous musicals of all time. This current assembly is a showcase for both the intimacy of GCT’s 400 seat in-the-round playing space and the uncanny knack that director Todd Nielsen has with large ensemble musicals. I have witnessed Nielsen’s work now for thirty years, and you would be hard-pressed to find another director who so lovingly guides his casts with an elegant simplicity and innovation in both staging and choreography.

1776 - Glendale Centre TheatreThere was an egregious occurrence with the lighting (no designer is credited): Nielsen uses every available aisle and there is an enormous amount of spill-light on the audience – this may have been intended for the purpose of showing us as part of the American process, but watching audience members watching the show had an adverse effect: the movement of the audience was distracting and there was unintentional permission for side-talking, unwrapping of candy and cell phone activity (phones went off no fewer than five times) – I believe this was no mere coincidence, even though I attended a Saturday matinee.

Many of Angela Wood’s costumes look as if they came off of perfectly coiffed, magnificently clean porcelain figures – like the story, the costumes are sanitized (you won’t see any road apples wedged into the delegates’ boots), but they are sumptuous, gorgeous and marvelously detailed.

This is the first time that so many powerful performances have graced this Equity Guest Contract venue at once: As John Adams, Peter Husmann avoids the trap of acting like one so many find “obnoxious and disliked” – he is merely a man devoted to a cause, and he completely evokes our sympathy when he sings to the heavens, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” (take heed, modern bookwriters – even with 25 characters, 1776 has a central character…something that is sorely missing from most modern librettos).

1776 - Glendale Centre Theatre

For Ben Franklin, John Butz decides to avoid an imitation of our perception of the great statesman; instead we are treated to a delightful combination of ego and humility. (There were two sidetracking issues with Franklin: one, he is supposed to be a “bit gouty in the leg,” but the actor has a full-on cast and crutches which mar his dance sequences; the other was the (also uncredited) make-up design – sadly, the line of Butz’s skullcap appeared on his forehead like a scar on Frankenstein’s monster).

Although there is some hit-and-miss in the cast, the two ladies are a standout: Victoria Strong gives a Broadway caliber performance as Abigail Adams and Michaelia Leigh is graceful, delightful and almost impish as Martha Jefferson.

Compared with last year’s production, Nielsen’s version feels a bit more like very professional community theater, yet he still manages to bring out the best in this musical (after all, the Liberty Bell still inspires and rings true – cracks and all).

photos by Tim Dietlein

Glendale Centre Theatre
324 N. Orange St. in Glendale
ends on August 13, 2011
for tickets, call 818 244-8481 or visit GCT

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